Sunday 22 September 2019

Paul Cleary's on that slow train coming

With 'Smalltime', the title track of the Blades' new EP, Paul Cleary has written the song of his life, writes Declan Lynch

Paul Cleary of 'The Blades'
Paul Cleary of 'The Blades'
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The Blades were formed in the summer of 1977. As we approach the Christmas of 2015, Paul Cleary has written what I believe is his greatest song, Smalltime, the title track of an EP which is just released.

You can also find it on YouTube with an evocative lyric-video by John Fisher, and there you will see that it is indeed great, a really big song, perhaps even the kind of song you might expect to hear in a musical, if it was a musical written by Paul Cleary.

There is also the excellent Harder Times and I Still Believe In You and All Fall Down, which is dedicated to our mutual friend, the late George Byrne.

But Smalltime sounds to me like the monument, the story of a man's life, in which Cleary searches his own soul and wonders if he was too afraid of failing, to really strive for success.

It is a marvellous thing, and most unusual for any man who started in 1977 to be doing his best work in 2015. But then the career of Paul Cleary and The Blades has always had some unique dimension.

In ordinary terms, they didn't make it.

At one point in the early 1980s, they seemed certain to make it, in such a way that we should now be interviewing Paul Cleary about his eighteenth million-selling album, albeit one that is probably not as good as the one before it, and considerably worse than the one before that.

But they did not take that train, which does not necessarily mean that Cleary just tore up his ticket, as it were, and walked out of the station mortified and went home for the rest of his life.

Which is what almost everybody else did.

Instead - if we extend our public-transport analogy and add a touch of Bob Dylan - he just waited for a different train, maybe a slow train, and what you are seeing now is that slow train coming.

Down the years, he had played in the superb bar-band The Cajun Kings, he had released the odd record, he had continued to write songs. He was raising three children with his wife Paula and no doubt that took up some of his time too. But it was probably the testimonial concert for Philip Chevron at the Olympia Theatre in August 2013 that really got him out there again.

Alone on stage, he played his own classic Downmarket and Philip's Enemies and he enjoyed it a lot more than he thought he would.

He'd had his doubts about doing the gig, because he has his doubts about all gigs and indeed about all aspects of the business they call show.

Though he loves playing live, he does not love the worrying. Though he loves making a record that he is proud of, he does not love the stress of being in a studio with so much at stake. Though he loves writing a song that turns out roughly the way he intended it, he does not find it easy to arrive at the finished version - it took him about a year to write Smalltime.

And if you're wondering why I haven't used any quotes from him yet, it's because he finds it boring when songwriters talk about their work, given that the work in essence is already done. "I always skip the quotes," he says.

I should add that he describes this reticence about almost all aspects of the job of being a musician in tones of much amusement, that Cleary is a humorous man with a deep self-awareness that these personality traits of his may not have made him the ideal candidate for a first-class ticket all the way on that rock'n'roll train going straight to the top of the world, baby!

And yet there is a line he has used many times over the years to describe himself and the sort of people in general who find themselves on a stage, singing songs or otherwise seeking the attention of the multitudes: "You don't get there by accident," he says.

That epiphany at the Chevron testimonial led to a triumphant Blades reunion gig at the Olympia and put him back in the game again, a man whose future is not behind him but in front of him - like it's 1980 all over again, except now he knows how it all turned out.

Indeed, The Blades are playing the Olympia on Saturday, December 5, one night before the Boomtown Rats, supported by The Radiators - or The Trouble Pilgrims as they are now known. Certainly, anyone emerging from a time tunnel and walking down Dame Street that weekend will find much to ponder.

And they will find Smalltime, a song for the ages.

Sunday Independent

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